Ripening
September 14, 2014

Strawberries Ripening © Erin Dunigan

Strawberries Ripening © Erin Dunigan

For most of human history, it’s as if we have had long spring-times and only the briefest of summers, a lot of time to put down roots and sprout but almost none to mature. But now, around the world and especially in the developed countries, more people are living longer, healthier lives than ever before. Our normal life span, which stayed at an almost steady twenty years for most of human history , has leapt in an evolutionary eyeblink to seventy-eightyears in the West. Why is this so important? Think about how helpless we are as infants and children compared to other species. It takes us so long to be able to live without our parents’ support, so very long to develop our intelligence and adaptability and skills, to grow in our capacity for compassion and wisdom, good judgment, and discernment. To put it bluntly, it takes all of us a frightfully long time to grow up and many of us never do.

The sudden spurt in longevity over the last fifty years has changed the landscape for growing old. Doesn’t that make you wonder what these years are for? That’s precisely what I’ve been wondering for the past twenty years: How do I make the time ahead count? How can my generation and the ones coming after us not just fritter our later years away, not doze through our aging?  – Sherry Ruth Anderson, “Ripening Time.”

The question I bring before us this morning is a simple one – as we journey through the chronology of our lives, are we ripening, or are we merely rotting? The rotting, of course, is inevitable – the ripening is not.

The next question is, what will we do about it?

What does ripening look like? How does it happen?

BananasMost of us are familiar with the situation of fruit in our grocery stores – bananas that come from Ecuador, picked green – I’ve seen them there at the port in Guayaquil – and shipped around the world. This is done since a green banana travels much better than a ripe one. So, they are kept intentionally immature so that they travel better. Once they reach their destination, the ripening process can be induced – artificially. The primary chemical that is at play in ripening is ethylene – it is that which is fostered when you put your fruit in a brown paper bag to help it ripen. It’s enhanced if you put an apple core or a banana peel in the bag – increasing the ethylene and thus the ripening.

What’s the big deal? It seems to work, doesn’t it? The fruit can travel better, then it ripens on demand – sounds ideal.

Except…

tree-ripened-peachWhen fruit is allowed to ripen on the tree, or the vine, or the plant, it’s ripening happens from the inside. When fruit is picked too early – for commercial and cosmetic reasons – that process ceases, and the ripening that happens is from the outside in. This second process resembles the first, more or less. But if you’ve ever tasted a peach, picked right from the tree and bit into on a summer day you will know that though the process might seem similar, there is something categorically different.

It is sweeter. Juicier. Tastier.

So, you may be asking yourselves about now – have I come to a horticultural presentation, or to Not Church? What does this have to do with anything?

I’m glad you asked…

We are, of course, all aging. We are all getting older. Our culture is full of ways to convince us that that doesn’t have to be the case. That aging doesn’t have to be inevitable, that getting old is just another problem to be fixed with the right cream, the right powder, the right pills. You can stay young forever! That is the claim. That is the promise.

But is it the truth? Is it reality?

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m all for being young at heart, for enjoying life to its fullest – and I am the first one to hope that people, when they guess my age, get it about ten years wrong in the direction of 29.

unripened peachesBut do we really want a bunch of perfectly hard peaches lining the shelves of our world? Durable, sure. Not showing any age spots or blemishes. Not showing any of the inevitable bruises of life. But tasteless. Bland. Lacking sweetness. Lacking depth of flavor, of color.

kenny-rogersI can’t help but think of Kenny Rogers – whose music I love, but whose face has lost all expression, to quote a line from the Gambler – his eyes forced in a perpetual perkiness.

Is this what aging is all about? Or is there something more?

Many of you know Glenn, who can’t be here today as he begins teaching for the new school year tomorrow up in Palm Desert. Those of you who know Glenn know that he is quite the horticulturalist.

Sunflower © Erin Dunigan

Sunflower © Erin Dunigan

In my conversation with Glenn he told me this: “The entire purpose of a plant is to produce seed. The purpose for producing seed is the dispersal of that seed. Everything the plant is geared for, created for, is to promote the next generation. Plants, in that way, are always sort of forward thinking.”

I began to wonder – is it the same for us? Sure, of course, technically on a biologically level it is true – if someone is not reproducing we are not going to continue. But on a more mystical level, or a spiritual level, or a metaphorical level – is this true?

The entire purpose of a plant is to produce seed. The purpose for producing seed is the dispersal of that seed. Everything the plant is geared for, created for, is to promote the next generation.

Many years ago I was working with a youth group – I was just out of college, the students were young teenagers. We were on a work project in a poor rural area in the east. On our day off we headed to a local river to go white water canoeing. I’ve got to admit – I’m something of a chicken. I know I might not present as that, but it’s the truth. So, as I sat there looking at the canoes, and at the rushing river, I began to consider who I wanted in my canoe. The youth group leader, of course. He was more than a decade my senior, big, strong. But as the assignments were made I was shocked to realize – the younger students wanted to go with me for just the same reasons I wanted to go with the leader. Wait a second, I remember thinking, how did I turn into an adult?? It was a rather shocking realization, this sense that instead of the one receiving it was time for me to be the one giving, to step into that role.

Richard Rohr puts it this way: “Why would any of us ripen until it is demanded of us?”

Bernie Zimney (June 2014)Sherry Ruth Anderson in her book, Ripening Time: Inside stories of aging with grace suggests that we are at a time in our collective lives in which we are hungry for ‘elders’ – and into which we are being called to become those elders for others who will follow.

If it is true, what does it mean? What does it ask of us or invite us into?

How do we let ourselves be shaped and transformed – how do we let life ripen us if it will?

DISCUSSION

In my pondering and research on ripening I came upon a rather geeky chemistry related conversation. Is ripening a physical or a chemical change? I thought, “Who cares?” But being the inquiring mind that I am, I figured I’d read a bit further and see what it was all about.

The consensus is that ripening is a chemical, not a physical change. Again, you might ask, as I did, why do I care? A chemical change involves the alteration of the physical and chemical properties of the substance. You can’t get the original back through physical means. Once you ripen, you can’t go back.

Last month I shared with you a quote from an author named Shane Claiborne “Most good things have been said far too often and just need to be lived.”

It is not merely by listening, reading, or discussing ripening that we get there – if we stay at that level we are in danger of being like parrots repeating what we hear from gurus or teachings, without converting the intellectual knowledge into our own experience. The way for us to ripen is to convert these teachings, like the starches converting to sugar. Instead of being something we say, they become who we are. But this ‘becoming’ is not an end in and of itself – no, the ripening of the fruit is for the dispersal of the seed. This becoming is meant to be shared.

Two points I’d like to leave with you – the first is that often ripening is enhanced through wounding. A fruit that is gashed or otherwise ‘damaged’ in some ways is actually able to ripen better than one left untouched. Lest we think that ‘ripening’ is all butterflies, rainbows and puppies – hardly. It is a transformation of our very being. It is not without a cost.

The second is this – you know the phrase, one bad apple spoils the bunch? Well, it is actually true. But true in a positive way as well. Once one fruit begins to ripen, others in its vicinity also increase their capacity for ripening. Exponentially. It is, in a sense, contagious.

The entire purpose of a plant is to produce seed. The purpose for producing seed is the dispersal of that seed. Everything the plant is geared for, created for, is to promote the next generation.

As we journey through the chronology of our lives, are we ripening, or are we merely rotting? The rotting, of course, is inevitable – the ripening is not.

The next question is, what will we do about it?

[While you’re thinking, take a listen to one of Ross’s inspiring selections, Tom Waits’ “The Heart of Saturday Night]